thoughts on post-fire construction

The devastating Fourmile fire is finally coming under control and, as we reported in an earlier post, the County’s code allow for rebuilding in the same location at the same size and height.  I have been in touch with a few local architects who would all like to help out in any way we can.  Some thoughts about how these efforts might take place:

We would like to offer to design/redesign the lost home of emergency responders for free.  Many of the architects I have spoken to have already expressed interest in this and we hope it can be of some help.  The County has waived Site Plan Review requirements, so this is a fairly straight-forward design and document process that we think will result in a higher quality of both design and construction for these heroic firefighters.  I still have to line up consultants who are willing to donate their time but I believe this will be forthcoming.  I will release a list of participating architects and consultants soon.

In light of the number of homes that need to be rebuilt, we would also like to come up with some ideas about how we might exercise some economy of scale to keep construction costs down and allow folks to get more bang for their buck.  This could take a couple of forms:

1.  Modular construction – you are all probably familiar with this and you may be likewise acquainted with my criticisms of this process.  Basically this is a semi-custom design and construction process where the building is subdivided into a number of trailer-sized components, built in a factory, and shipped and then assembled on site.  My chief objection to this process has to do with the exporting of labor – the factories displace the work of local carpenters, framers, and other tradespeople.  As the construction economy has been so terribly lately, I would not champion a method of construction that might make this situation worse.  Not to mention that some of the people who lost houses are probably the same tradespeople that could use some work as well as a new house.

Marmol Radziner's modular desert house

2.  I think this method has a lot of promise.  Panelization also breaks the  building down into components, but does so at a much smaller scale – that of walls, not whole structural sections.  These panels could be built down in Boulder or Longmont and this kind of construction could continue without the weather interruptions common to the mountainous sites for which they are intended.  Key to the potential cost savings here is the development of a series of semi-standard panel sizes that can be configured to accommodate differing sites and maybe existing foundations.

Eames House - a model for panelization?

(photo by Eric Wittman)

3.  Bulk purchasing of materials.  There certainly is money to be saved in purchasing in quantity and pooling some efforts, even among different contractors, could be utilized to reduce construction costs.  This would allow a great variety of designs and styles but some similar material expressions.  You can see a great example of this in the Floral Park Historic District in Boulder.  A one-block collection of houses built in the 1940’s was constructed using identical brick and similar window sizes and styles.  These materials and components were purchased in bulk by the builder and not only saved the homeowners considerable money but also lend the neighbor a kind of theme-and-variation consistency that has only improved with time.

Floral Park Historic District, Boulder

4.  Design Build partnerships.  Many of these already exist and it may makes some sense for architects and contractors to form new partnerships to speed up the design/cost/construction process.  We have done this process quite a few times in the past with Cottonwood Custom Builders resulting in considerable savings of both time and money.

I  don’t know if any or all of these efforts will come to pass and there is serious talk about forming a non-profit of architects, builders, and engineers to help out.  If you have other ideas or would like to be included, either primarily or by simple reference, please let me know.  I think that simply doing nothing would be a bit of a disservice to the efforts of the emergency responders and pooling our efforts may help create a new community of homes in the mountains that can be energy efficient, thrifty, and beautiful.

Boulder County Land Use Department is holding a brownbag lunch/discussion tomorrow, 9/14 at 11am in the Administrative Services Training Room of the County Courthouse (east side) to identify the issues we need to address and the questions we need to answer.  This is a brainstorming session and everyone is welcome.


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